TEL AVIV: An article by Dr. Neve Gordon in the Los Angeles Times this week called for an international boycott against Israel. He cited the example of South Africa to show how a worldwide boycott could compel Israel to end the occupation, which he compared to the apartheid regime.
I have known and respected Neve Gordon for many years, but cannot agree with him this time – neither about the similarity with South Africa nor about the efficacy of a boycott of Israel.
Also this week, Desmond Tutu visited Israel with the Elders, an organization of elder statesmen from all over the world assembled by Nelson Mandela. Tutu, the South African Anglican archbishop and Nobel Prize laureate, was one of the leaders of the fight against apartheid there and, later, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated the crimes of the regime. I asked him how much the boycott of South Africa contributed to the fall of apartheid.
Some believe the boycott was decisive in the anti-apartheid struggle, but others believe its impact was marginal.
“The boycott was immensely important, Tutu said. “Much more than the armed struggle. The importance of the boycott was not only economic, but also moral, the archbishop explained. “[I]t gave us the feeling that we are not alone, that the whole world is with us. That gave us the strength to continue.
Tutu s answer emphasizes the huge difference between the South African struggle and ours.
The former was between a large majority and a small minority. Whites amounted to less than 10 percent of the population. More than 90 percent of the country s inhabitants supported the boycott.
In Israel, the situation is the very opposite. Jews amount to more than 80 percent of Israel s citizens, and 60 percent of the inhabitants between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. 99.9 percent of the Jews oppose a boycott on Israel.
They will not feel “the whole world is with us , but rather that “the whole world is against us . The impact of a boycott on Israel would be to push the large majority into the arms of the extreme right and create a fortress mentality against the “anti-Semitic world .
Centuries of pogroms have imprinted on the consciousness of the Jews the conviction that the whole world is out to get them. This belief was reinforced a hundredfold by the Holocaust. Every Jewish Israeli child learns in school that “the entire world was silent when the six million were murdered.
The Holocaust will have a decisive impact on any call for a boycott of Israel, which will remind many of the Nazi slogan “Kauft nicht bei Juden! – don t buy from Jews.
That does not apply to every kind of boycott. Some years ago, the Gush Shalom movement, in which I am active, called for a boycott of products from the settlements. The boycott was designed to strengthen those Israelis who oppose the occupation, without becoming anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. Since then, the European Union has been working to close their gates to the products of settlers, and almost nobody has accused it of anti-Semitism.
When the archbishop asked what we, the Israeli peace activists, are hoping for, I told him: We hope for Barack Obama to publish a comprehensive and detailed peace plan and to use the full persuasive power of the United States to convince the parties to accept it. We hope that the entire world will rally behind this endeavor. And we hope that this will help to set the Israeli peace movement back on its feet and convince our public that it is both possible and worthwhile to follow the path of peace with Palestine.
No one who entertains this hope can support the call for boycotting Israel. Those who call for a boycott act out of despair. They have despaired of the Israelis, concluding that there is no chance of changing Israeli public opinion. One must ignore the Israeli public and concentrate on mobilizing the world against the State of Israel.
I do not share either view – neither the despair of the Israeli people, to which I belong, nor the hope that the world will stand up and compel Israel to change its ways against its will. The mistaken assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles the South African experience leads to a mistaken choice of strategy.
True, the Israeli occupation and the South African apartheid system have certain similar characteristics. In the West Bank, there are roads “for Israelis only . But the Israeli policy is based on a national conflict, not race theories. In South Africa, a white and a black could not marry, and sexual relations between them were a crime. In Israel there is no such prohibition. On the other hand, an Arab Israeli citizen who marries an Arab from the occupied territories cannot bring his or her spouse to Israel. The reason: safeguarding the Jewish majority in Israel. Both cases are reprehensible, but basically different.
In South Africa the struggle was about the regime, not about the unity of the country. Both whites and blacks considered themselves South Africans and were determined to keep the country intact. The whites did not want partition, and indeed could not want it, because their economy was based on the labor of the blacks.
In this country, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have nothing in common – not a common national feeling, not a common religion, not a common culture and not a common language. The vast majority of the Israelis want a Jewish (or Hebrew) state. The vast majority of the Palestinians want a Palestinian (or Islamic) state. Israel is not dependent on Palestinian workers – on the contrary, it drives the Palestinians out of the work place. Because of this, there is now a worldwide consensus that the solution lies in the creation of the Palestinian state next to Israel.
In short: the two conflicts are fundamentally different. Therefore, the methods of struggle, too, must necessarily be different.
Uri Avneryis an Israeli writer and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement. In his youth he was a member of the underground military Irgun organization and during the war of 1948 was a member of the Samson’s Foxes commando unit. Avnery served in Israel’s Knesset from 1965-74 and 1979-81. This article is an abbreviated version of an article that first appeared in Ma’an News and is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Ma’an News and the author. The full article can be read at http://maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=222257.